Clint Hurdle's first season as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates energized the club in the 2011 season.
The Bucs were in first place in the National League's Central Division by one-half game on July 19 and stayed in the thick of the division pennant race until an August swoon guaranteed their 19th consecutive losing season.
The Pirates, who finished 72-90 and in fourth place in the division, were the surprise of the Major League Baseball world throughout the first four months of this past season, and their fans picked up on the enthusiasm as well.
The Pirates sold out 17 games this season and attracted more than 1,900,000 fans - the fourth-highest season attendance in the club's 125-year history - through the turnstiles at beautiful PNC Park.
Hurdle, who joined Pirates president Frank Coonelly as special guests at the Altoona Curve Booster Club's fall banquet at the UVA Club Tuesday night, believes that Pittsburgh, a city which has lived and died with the football Steelers over the past four decades, is a pretty avid baseball town as well.
"I know some people who knew it as a baseball town before it [became] a football town,'' Hurdle said. "The football team wasn't always good, and the baseball team has had its romance with the city. I mean, there's five [Pirates'] World Championships, and the ones in 1960 and the 1970s, a lot of people can still identify with.
The Curve will not be holding their annual offseason banquet in January, owner Bob Lozinak said Tuesday, and instead will go to an every-other-year format.
The annual Pirates Caravan will stop in Altoona earlier this offseason, on Dec. 15, and former Curve players Andrew McCutchen and Brad Lincoln are scheduled to attend, along with broadcaster Steve Blass and third base coach Nick Leyva.
The caravan stop will be at the Curve Store at Logan Valley Mall from 6:30-8 p.m. Fans are asked to bring a canned food item or non-perishable food item as a donation to benefit St. Vincent DePaul Society Soup Kitchen.
"This summer was electric, and the energy that was in the downtown as well as in the ballpark was significant,'' Hurdle, 54, added. "The turnstiles would tell you that the fans responded to the team, and we're thankful for their support. But we also know that we have a lot of work to do.''
Hurdle - married and the father of three - forged a reciprocal commitment of his own to the Pittsburgh area by moving his family from Colorado to establish a permanent residence in Pittsburgh's North Hills.
"That's our plan, to engage in the community, engage [his two youngest children] in the school system, and when we go around grocery shopping or something like that, to thank the people for the support they showed throughout the season,'' Hurdle said.
The Pirates' ties with Altoona and the organization's Class AA affiliate, the Curve, are an important part of that support.
"It's critical,'' Hurdle said. "The proximity to Pittsburgh is going to resonate probably louder and clearer here than in a lot of places."
"The people here in Altoona feel an investment in the Pirates' players,'' he said. "And that's something that helps us in Pittsburgh.''
Linda Strong and her husband, Larry, are long-time Curve season ticket holders who served as a host family for Curve players during the club's early years.
"I think there was a lot of excitement here when the Pirates had the stretch where they were at the top of the division this summer and they were playing really good ball,'' said Linda Strong, who travels to Pittsburgh with her husband from their home in Tyrone to watch several Pirates' games each year. "It's always fun to count how many former Curve players are in the Pirates' lineup.''
Long-time Pirates' fan Denny Mountain of Altoona, who was not on hand at Tuesday's banquet but saw 13 Bucs' games in Pittsburgh this year, believed that the club's winning ways in the first half of the season generated fan interest.
"I think more people wanted to go over there this year, and more people were talking about them,'' Mountain said.
Pirates' jerseys popped up as standard dress with increased frequency here and in Pittsburgh this summer.
"The entire region really embraced the team,'' Coonelly said. "The fans were passionately involved with every pitch.''
Certainly through July, when the Pirates boasted a 54-52 record and stood a good chance of snapping their onerous near two-decade losing streak. Their 72 wins under Hurdle was the most since the 2004 Pirates also won 72.
"It's obviously disappointing the way the season ended, but our fans have been with us through thick and thin,'' Coonelly said. "They deserve a winner, and we intend to give them a winner.''